Death Cult Criticizes Other Death Cult as ‘Degeneration of Religion’

A little while ago, I reported on the Vatican’s plans to bring the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” to Mexican non-believers, with the prediction that the Church wanted to proselytize — not dialogue — and aimed to tell everyone in attendance why their beliefs were wrong and Catholicism is right all the time.

It turns out, though, that even Catholic-identified Mexicans can’t escape criticism for how they practice their faith.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has taken aim at the popular Mexican cult of Santa Muerte. The roots of the iconic skeletal figure famously honored in colorful Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations can be traced to the historical blending of Old-World Catholicism with indigenous beliefs and practices, and she is honoured in many Mexican homes and families today:

Author R. Andrew Chestnut, who has researched and written extensively about the cult of Santa Muerte, neatly encapsulates the Christian/Catholic objections to Santa Muerte like this:

Ravasi rejects devotion to her (she’s a female figure) on theological grounds. From the Christian perspective, Christ defeated His last enemy — death — through His resurrection. Thus, the veneration or worship of a figure of death puts one in league with the enemy of Christ, or Satan. Most of the statements made by Mexican bishops imply that devotees of Santa Maria engage in Satanism unknowingly.

Ravasi has been a little bit less charitable in his choice of words. He called the cult a “degeneration of religion” and declared the skeletal saint (charmingly called “the Bony Lady” by some followers) “sinister and infernal.” He further insists that “religion celebrates life, but here you have death.”

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Catholic imagery — central to which is the crucifix, a cross depicted with Jesus’ suffering figure still attached — might be forgiven for pointing out the irony in his words.

Ravasi goes on to link the cult of Santa Muerte with the drug cartels and criminals who often venerate her image. Factually, he’s correct: Santa Muerte is popular with druglords and in Mexican prisons. However, he’s likely confusing correlation with causation: Santa Muerte doesn’t lead to a life of crime, but she is most popular in communities of the poor, where desperation drives both superstition and increased criminality.

It probably also doesn’t hurt to note that, where attempts have been made to give the cult of Santa Muerte official structure and standing, most Churches of the Holy Death embrace gay marriage and welcome same-sex couples wanting to celebrate the sacrament. Nearly 40% of Mexicans support same-sex marriage (PDF), and if global trends are any indication, that number is likely to grow. It’s easy to see why Santa Muerte might be culturally and morally appealing to Mexicans… and why she might give Ravasi and his ilk some sleepless nights.

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.

  • Kengi

    How interesting. There’s a long human tradition of combining different characteristics of different religions and cultures to form new religions. After all, that’s how Christianity started.

    The Catholic Church kind of let VooDoo form and slip away from them when Catholicism was merged with local customs in the Caribbean. I’m sure the Vatican is eager to not let this one follow the same course.

    • Ibis3

      They’re about 400 years too late.

  • C Peterson

    “Degeneration” and “religion”, two closely related concepts. It doesn’t much matter which religion.

  • LesterBallard

    When one religion attacks another religion it’s like one clown criticizing another clown’s make-up.

    • Artor

      Hey, are you looking at me funny?

    • Hat Stealer

      Then again, you can actually see make-up. And clowns for that matter.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      How can you make such a comparison? Clown red shoes are way bigger than the pope’s red shoes.

  • Kengi

    A quick look at scholarly articles on the cult shows there hasn’t been much research published in English in popular anthropology journals, but there have been a fair number of articles mentioning the cult of Santa Muerte focused on drug gangs.

    One mentioned that in a study more than 50% of the prayers to her were asking for vengeance.

    Several of the articles discussing the anthropological aspects focused on her popularity with the youth of Mexico. Others have looked some at how the cult is spreading and changing as it comes to communities in the United States.

    That one got into more detail on some of the positive aspects, in addition to the negative, of the saint, demonstrating the complexity of the religion. Looks like it may be here to stay for awhile. As if we needed a new and improved death cult…

  • Brian Westley

    “Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult” — Conan the Barbarian

    • Artor

      Now their temples are everywhere!

  • Richard Wade

    Hearing how the mighty Roman Catholic Church, with all its wealth, power, influence, and legions of over a billion followers is getting some worrisome competition from a scarecrow with a skull for a head has given me this emotional reaction: :)

  • busterggi

    A cult that uses a dead guy on a stick as its symbol has no business calling another cult degenerate.

  • Duke OfOmnium

    It’s nice to know that the RCC is zealously pursuing irrelevance in other countries, not just the US.

  • Keulan

    The Catholic Church is calling another religion “sinister and infernal”? Sounds like the pot is calling the kettle black to me.

  • Artor

    But…but…They’re not TRUE Christians™!!!

  • guest

    Silly Catholics, everyone knows Santeria is the one TRUE religion. Now where’d that chicken go?

  • Kingasaurus

    I want to make fun of them parading around Skeletor, here, but…

    …that is one ugly beach umbrella.

  • Holytape

    I like that death has finally caught up with the last spring fashion.

  • closetatheist

    So says the leadership of a church whose headquarters (the Vatican) has encased, embalmed, and displayed the rotting corpses of about the last 10 popes and welcomes the faithful to come and pray at the grotesque spectacle… familiarity with Catholicism in Europe, where many churches have the skeleton of a dead local “saint” decorated and proudly displayed by the front door makes Ravasi’s objections and accusations even more confusing…blind idiots, all of them.

  • Muggsy

    “You pray wrong.” How many wars have been started for that reason?

  • Carmelita Spats

    Santa Muerte has been giving the RCC a headache in my country for a while. The reason why she is so popular with marginalized groups is because Guadalupe “forgives” whereas Santa Muerte “kicks butt”. The guy who headed the Basilica of Guadalupe for 40 years, Msgr. Guillermo Schulemberg, publicly admitted that Guadalupe was a fraud. Honestly, I would rather superstitions go away but I “get” it…Although Catholicism and Santa Muerte are both death cults, there is a big difference. The Santa Muerte veneration is done to protect you in the “here and now” and not as a preparation for an afterlife. It is about survival and vengeance…Santa Muerte “takes” your enemy instead of “taking” you. Thus, you are left to live another day. What cracks me up is that the Santa Muerte devotees adapt Catholic rituals and prayers to the cult of Santa Muerte…This hilarious imitation INFURIATES the Mexican bishops because they claim a “sophisticated” theology!!!!!!

  • Robster

    Um, Bony L, aren’t they the ones that preceded Bony M?